Al Qaeda in Trouble in Iraq?

Some experts believe al Qaeda’s latest video shows desperation over their plight in Iraq.

A new video by al-Qaida’s deputy leader Thursday left no doubt about what the terror network claims is at stake in Iraq — describing it as a centerpiece of its anti-American fight and insisting the Iraqi insurgency is under its direct leadership. But the proclamations by Ayman al-Zawahri carried another unintended message: reflecting the current troubles confronting the Sunni extremists in Iraq, experts said.

The Islamic State of Iraq, the insurgent umbrella group that is claimed by al-Qaida, has faced ideological criticism from some militants, and rival armed groups have even joined U.S. battles against it. A U.S.-led offensive northwest of Baghdad — in one of the Islamic State’s strongholds — may have temporarily disrupted and scattered insurgent forces.

“Some of the developments suggest that it (the Islamic State) is more fragile than it was before,” said Bruce Hoffman, a Washington-based terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. think tank. Al-Zawahri “is trying to replenish the Islamic State brand,” he said. “It’s time to reassert its viability, but how connected to reality that is, is another issue.”

[…]

But al-Qaida in Iraq — the group that claims allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s goals — has been put on the defensive. Some Sunni insurgent groups have publicly split with it, distancing themselves from its bomb attacks on Iraqi civilians and accusing al-Qaida of trying to strong-arm their members into joining.

One influential faction, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, has openly helped U.S. forces in new offensives against al-Qaida in and around Baghdad, and some Sunni tribes have turned against it in western Anbar province. U.S. forces have focused on al-Qaida-linked fighters in their security clampdowns in Baghdad and so-called “belts” around the city in recent weeks. That has brought an increase in American casualties, but insurgent and militia attacks appear to have fallen.

Destroying the influence of Al Qaeda, or even foreign jihadists writ large, in Iraq is not going to end the insurgency. That cohort may well be the most violent faction and they may even be inciting more than their fair share of the sectarian discord. Still, there are plenty of indigenous, non-Islamist groups at work to continue the fight. Indeed, the fact that Republican Senators continue to bail on the war would seem to be further evidence that the insurgents are winning.

Beyond Iraq, the debate over al Qaeda’s strength as an international movement continues. Bruce Riedel‘s piece in the May/June Foreign Policy, for example, argues that they’re going gangbusters. It may well be an academic question, anyway. As Dave Schuler noted Monday on both his site and his OTB Radio appearance, though, the “al Qaeda” brand is a nebulous concept and both sides have incentive to use that name for propaganda purposes.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jim Henley says:

    Still, there are plenty of indigenous, non-Islamist groups at work to continue the fight. Indeed, the fact that Republican Senators continue to bail on the war would seem to be further evidence that the insurgents are winning.

    I suspect that varies from group to group because it depends on what each group wants. The ones whose main interest is getting US troops out of Iraq are theoretically closer, but the “residual troops” meme is so stubborn in both parties that I have my doubts even here. As for the ones whose main interest is getting US troops out as a prelude to restoring Baathist rule or Sunni hegemony or compelling a better share of the loot from the Shiites, I don’t know. I think the Shiite parties, with Iranian backing, can probably keep the Sunnis out of real power indefinitely. Lacking real power the Sunnis can probably immiserate the country with GG ops indefinitely. That’s a stalemate or a mutual defeat depending on how sunny your outlook.

    Interestingly, the Shiite nightmare scenario seems to be: 1) They acquiesce in US demands to let Baathists back into important government positions. 2) The Baathists launch a coup, which is what they’re good at. 3) The US accepts the results because it’s simpler, giving us the “strongman who isn’t named Saddam” some policymakers have wanted. That’s why they make sure not to pass a new de-baathification law. But that’s a non-Islamist insurgency victory scenario that requires the US to remain in place.

  2. Wayne says:

    James
    “Republicans Senators continue to bail on the war would seem to be further evidence that the insurgents are winning.”
    It may be in the perception of the MSM and U.S. but not over in ME, infrastructure realities and other hard realities areas.

    “Destroying the influence of Al Qaeda, or even foreign jihadists writ large, in Iraq is not going to end the insurgency.”
    No more then taking Northern Africa, succes of the Normandy landing, capturing Italy, France and being poise on German borders meant the WWII was over. However it would be a well on the right way of ending the insurgency.

    The debate on al Qaeda’s strength as an international movement is just that debatable. Many believe that they are using most of their resources in the fight in Iraq. Maybe they will have a flurry of action elsewhere. Doing so though will use up much of their resources, which may not be replaced. Leaving them alone will allowed them to replenish and build up their resources. Logistical resource determines how much capability an enemy has to conduct war. Even in unconventional war like this one.

    Can they fight as long as they are alive and have the will to? Yes. However their capabilities to do so can be limited. Also they often loose their will when they suffer to many set backs and the resources dry up.

    It seem to me you are making the argument that if we can’t stop murder then we should give up on trying to prevent murders.

    JH
    Good post. I don’t want to over simplify things but like riot control, we must get control of the instigators before we can hope to calm the rest of the groups.

  3. Arcs says:

    Indeed, the fact that Republican Senators continue to bail on the war would seem to be further evidence that the insurgents are winning.

    More likely, that’s evidence that our media is winning.

  4. Anjin-San says:

    Here’s another clue for you all…

    Al Qaeda keeps proclaiming that Iraq is the centerpoint for their conflict with America because…

    Our presence in Iraq is a huge win for them that presents them will all kinds of opportunities they would not otherwise have. They know Bush is stupid enough to buy their self serving message hook, line, and sinker.

  5. daveinboca says:

    Domenici may be reflecting the stance that the White House will eventually adopt as the ‘08 season approaches. A slow-mo withdrawal from advanced hazardous surge positions back to “enclaves” in a suburban zone near Baghdad and other urban centers. A little like Vietnam, but here the unrest is genuinely between ethnic & religious & AQ.

    BTW, AQ is now admitting it is taking a licking, but the MSM has no truck with good news during this war & that AQ self-assessment is not being disseminated. Honest reporters like John Burns at the NYT are being ignored and young TV suck-ups know that bad news is what their editorial bosses want to hear—so it remains the explosion of the day. The Tet syndrome repeats itself. Some Repubs will bow to the prevailing winds & the stupidly conducted expedition to Iraq will slowly retreat.

    Like the Euroweenie left, the Dems exult in non-performance & national self-abasement.

  6. Bandit says:

    AQ knows that no matter how bad it gets in Iraq they can always count on unwavering support in the US.

  7. C.Wagener says:

    If AQ in Iraq is defeated and discredited, something that seems to now be occurring, I’m not sure we need to care about Sunni vs. Shia. AQ is the threat to the U.S., the ones that will follow us home.

    The problem is that the way A.Q. is defeated and stays that way is by convincing Iraqis that “tribe America” in Yon’s words is going to stay until the job’s done. U.S. politicians are costing American lives and strengthening A.Q. with their talk of surrender. It’s an amazing contrast between the will of soldiers and marines in 115 degree heat versus the spineless, pampered politicians.